A Swift experiment in Lilliputian logic

In the subversive spirit of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, four young actors question authority in an interview with their director, Conall Morrison

Stepping into rehearsals for the National Youth Theatre's production of Gulliver's Travels is a little like arriving on the shore of a strange new world.

"Come in," says Conall Morrison, the play's adapter and director, standing among a group of 16 young performers – drawn from youth theatre groups throughout Ireland by the National Association of Youth Drama – currently brandishing an array of musical instruments, puppets and curious props. "We're discussing a point of logic."

In Swift’s fantastical satire, however, logic is something to be queried, pushed to extremes or archly upended, like the petty politics of Lilliput, the dwarfing morality of Brobdingnag or the noble race of horse-like Houyhnhnms, who keep boorish, manlike Yahoos at bay. In this spirit, four cast members gather during their lunch break to question authority, interviewing their director (with occasional interjection from a moderator) about his professional journeys, standing tall with Swift and learning different customs in the land of youth theatre.

Luke Casserly (Longford): The first question that we wanted to ask was how did you get into directing theatre?
Conall Morrison: I wrote a play when I was 17. It came second in an all-Irish young playwrights competition. To this day, I'm still searching for the person who won. So, that's why I've stayed in the business – out of malice! That play was put on in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when I was 19, and I watched the director in the rehearsals and thought: I could have a go at that. And I did. The first play I directed was at Edinburgh University, which was The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty by Martin Lynch [in 1985]. I found it stimulating and challenging, and easier than writing. So that's how it kicked off: part pleasure, part ambition, part laziness.

Chris Walley (Cork): What was the attraction of Gulliver's Travels?
Morrison: Well, I've been a fan of the book and of Jonathan Swift for as long as I can remember. I've adapted several novels or other plays for the stage, and I'm always interested in looking at raw material that I think would make an interesting and potentially innovative theatre piece. Also, adapting allows me to scratch my writerly itch, so I can work with words and shape the theatre piece in my own imagination. Gulliver's Travels was a supreme opportunity to do that. Swift was an incredibly prolific and fascinating man in terms of his perceptiveness, his savagery, his anguished compassion. He's like a prism. You use one beam of light as a point of entry, or inquiry, and it comes out in God-knows-which direction or what colour.

Madeline O'Carroll (Wexford): Why did you choose to do this piece with young people as opposed to something else?
Morrison: I'd been on a long journey with the piece. When this opportunity came up, I thought: this material is actually ideal for young adults, for the National Youth Theatre, because it gives great scope for play, invention, physicality, the use of language and musical expression. I also thought that, because of some of the satires I'd included, it was entirely appropriate for a young cast. The play is full of humour and songs, but some of the other material is a fairly dark and savage satire on politicians and bankers and lawyers, and that seemed entirely suitable for a group of 16- to 18-year-olds facing a country that's been handed down to them that is broadly banjaxed. Here you've got a group of people facing with clear-eyed vision into the future, saying we can have the crack, but, God, we've got a task ahead, because the country that you're bequeathing us is in a mess. However, the antidote is within us.

Moderator: How different has it been for you as a youth theatre cast to work with a professional director such as Conall?
Katie O'Byrne (Dublin): I've found the big difference is the learning curve, because we're working with such professionals. The back of my script is full of Conall quotes and John [Taite, assistant director] quotes. I've written down tips that might apply to what we're doing at the time, but also stuff I know I can use later. As an actor I've progressed hugely, day by day. I've heard other people say that regularly.


Luke: Is this the first time you've worked with a group of people our age?
Morrison: It is, yes. Absolutely. I've done various workshops and taught classes, but this is the first full-on youth theatre show I've done. As I said to you from day one, frankly I was terrified. I was very much outside my comfort zone. But so far it's been a joyous experience . . . It could all end in tears yet! But fingers crossed.

Katie: It would be interesting to know about your creative process, how you went about adapting it.
Morrison: Well, initially I went wide. Having deeply immersed yourself in a vast amount of Swift's writings, you ask: what stays with me? What are the things that moved me, surprised me, that might be potent to put on a stage, or that spoke to me most about contemporary Ireland? So it's almost like a process of responding to gravity. All of this finally settled to the ground and everything else receded back on to the bookshelf. But it's a slow process.

Moderator: Conall was talking about satire and how it refers to the world outside the fiction. Gulliver's Travels has various landscapes of fantasy, but they always hit somewhere closer to home. Do the cast see present-day Ireland in these outlandish worlds?
Madeline: Some of [Swift's writing] speaks about "the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish, and tinsel" and getting through to another world through other routes. If you sat down with someone and told them, 'This is the issue with society – bankers, lawyers, yaddah yaddah . . .', it would kind of go over their head. But if you take someone on a journey like Gulliver's Travels and show them something outlandish and giant or tiny, you start to see everything for what it really is. That's something that resonates with me about Gulliver's Travels – how important storytelling is and how you can reach the truth through something so fantastical.
Katie: From reading the book and then reading Conall's script, there are moments when you go, 'Wow, humans are terrible things! Why do we do that?' It really makes you look at yourself.
Madeline: It's like you have to climb completely out of yourself to see it.

Moderator: Everybody wants to see the better Houyhnhnm of their nature reflected back to them and nobody wants to identify with the Yahoos. Do you think theatre can budge people out of positions they've long held?
Madeline: I think the best way to change people is through a slow process. I think theatre can do that, but it's not something that brings change right down on top of you. You need to absorb it, feel everything and go away and think about it. It does change things, very much so, like all forms of art. We have one very special question left: Do you have any advice for aspiring young actors?
Morrison: Well, it's a bit of a cliche, but it's persistence. It's about sticking at it. There's really no other advice that's worth its salt. If you really want it, you have to keep at it. If you keep at it, you will get it. I see so much talent in this group. You bring to bear a seriousness of intent and intelligence, and also you're still open to the concept of play, of freewheeling invention. So if you're a sample of what the next generation of theatre artists has to offer, the artform is looking good.

Gulliver's Travels is at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday;
and the Everyman Theatre, Cork, September 5-7